During the 1920s and ‘30s, a little old lady walked the halls of the Biltmore and the Alexandria, the two grandest hotels downtown L.A. had to offer. Dressed in black, she was easy to miss, a seemingly bygone holdover from the Victorian era, insignificant amid the swirl of modern life. But what most of the flappers and philosophers who brushed past her didn’t know was that they were passing former royalty. She was none other than Emma Summers, “the Oil Queen of California,” whose financial brilliance had made her millions at the turn of the century, outwitting big oil companies and controlling the L.A. market for over a decade.
Emma A. McCutchen was born in Kentucky in 1858, the privileged daughter of a banker who was also involved in politics. A naturally gifted pianist, Emma graduated from the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1879. She soon married a man named Alpha C. Summers, and the couple headed west, living briefly in Texas before making their way to boomtown Los Angeles. In 1883, the Summers moved into a home on California Street on Fort Moore Hill, then a wealthy neighborhood that shared space with the City Cemetery and later the Los Angeles Public High School.
The deeply religious Emma became a popular piano teacher, hosting pupils in her Fort Moore Hill home. But Emma craved more and soon began using her earnings to dabble in the ever-expanding SoCal real estate market. This market was forever changed in 1892, when E.L. Doheny and Charles A. Canfield discovered oil in the upscale neighborhood of Crown Hill, just west of downtown L.A.
Emma was fascinated by the discovery and subsequent oil frenzy, and soon paid $700 for a half interest in a well at Court and Temple streets. It was a bumpy entry into the business- the casing of the well collapsed, and more and more money was needed to continue the operation. Despite her prim-and-proper appearance, Emma relished being in the field among the other wildcatters. “Night after night, by the light of a flaring torch, she hovered over it, as if it were a sick babe’s cradle,” one associate recalled.
Her persistence finally paid off when the oil came in. Encouraged and obsessed, Emma went into debt buying up more wells on Crown Hill. “When I found myself $10,000 in debt, I thought if I ever got that paid and as much more in the bank, I would be glad to quit,” she later recalled. But this was not to be, as the seed had been planted. “I saw a chance in the oil business and sunk a well, and that carried me on and on until I couldn’t stop,” she admitted.
The elegant Mrs. Summers soon became a fixture on the Los Angeles Oil Field, as the expansive oil district around the original Doheny well came to be called.
“Rolling up her sleeves, the genteel Summers joined her grease-spattered workers during daylight hours, directing their labors, while at night she handled the bookkeeping and gave music lessons to finance continued drilling,” Los Angeles Times historian Cecilia Rasmussen writes. “’It’s a gusher!’ cried Summers every time one of her rigs struck oil and a tower of black gold streamed into the sky.”
This down-to-earth practicality would serve Emma well, and help her diversify her business. “Whether she sees a loose block of 10,000 oil stocks in the street or a loose horse in the same, it’s Mrs. Summers for the tying up,” one reporter for the Los Angeles Times marveled. “No dallying about her.”
According to Rasmussen, Emma soon taught herself the laws of supply and demand and began selling oil to major consumers all over town, cutting out any middlemen and taking no partners. By the turn of the century, the “shadow of the little lady in black” loomed large in California business circles. “If Mrs. Emma A. Summers were less than a genius she could not, as she does today, control the Los Angeles oil markets,” the San Francisco Call reported in 1901.
The newspaper was not exaggerating. By the turn of the century, Emma would control half of the L.A. Oil Field, her wells producing an amazing 50,000 barrels a month. She was unafraid of her male competitors and felt she was treated fairly by her colleagues. “When men and women meet in the business world they meet as equals,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “If men treat women no better than they would treat other men certainly they treat them no worse. In my years of business experience, no man has ever attempted to take advantage of me because I am a woman.”
But this congeniality belied a shrewd business sense and a character made of steel. “There are men in Los Angeles who not like Emma Summers,” Sunset Magazine reported. “But that is merely because she has followed the golden rule of business and done unto other as they would have done to her—and done it first.
Never one to back down from conflict, Emma once told the Los Angeles Times of a current feud, “I’ll fight, and if you beat me, you’ll find me a good second.” But Emma rarely came in second, and her innovative decisions frequently led to headlines such as this one from the Los Angeles Times in 1901: “Queen Emma Rules Roost: Mrs. Summers Outwits Male Competitors:”
If anyone thinks the “oil queen” has been dethroned in Los Angeles, it is a guess very wide of the mark. If Mrs. Emma A. Summers was ever entitled to be called the “California Oil Queen,” the title is hers today. She has defied, once more, the giants of the local field, has won the fight and she is today said to be in absolute and triumphant control.
Bite your lips, if you must, you “big fellows,” at being defeated by this nervy little woman, but take your medicine, for everybody else will enjoy the joke.
But Emma was not satisfied to just be the Oil Queen of Los Angeles, conducting business out of the grand new Hellman Building at 4th and Spring Streets. She soon branched out into other areas, buying oil wells in Kansas and backing early downtown theaters like the Casino and the Broadway. In news reports from the time, she was credited with single-handedly saving the Broadway.
“In theaterdom they are calling Mrs. Summers the mascot of the house,” the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1905. “Whole power and principalities have been arrayed against the Casino in the last few months, but apparently this woman’s business tact and skill, equally effective, whether in oil or amusement, has turned the tide away from the dismal strand of failure. “
Just as she willingly got her petticoats muddied in the fields, Emma wasn’t afraid to do a job that seemed beneath her when it needed doing. One day in 1905, she was walking by the Casino and was displeased with the performance of the doorman. She fired him at once, and the so-called “Empress of Anti-Standard [oil]” began collecting tickets until a replacement could be found. “Mrs. Summers,” the Los Angeles Times reported, “who has a good nature for such a tremendously aggressive business personality, sat in the theater office with her face wreathed in perspiration and smiles at her own escapade.”
This attention to detail concerning even her side projects is more astounding because 1905 was a monumental year in her life. That year, she secured a gargantuan contract to supply 30,000 barrels of oil to the county and an additional contract with the Los Angeles City Waterworks. This meant she would service the Los Angeles Railway Company and numerous factories, downtown hotels and businesses. According to the Los Angeles Times:
Mrs. E.A. Summers, the Los Angeles “oil queen” was a queen indeed yesterday. At a wave of her wand, her competitors bowed at her feet as she deftly snatched from their grasp two large contracts. Even the Standard Oil Company did her homage, for she underbid them on a big order. No royal personage of olden times ever ruled subjects as the clever woman who reigns in the local oil jobbing industry ruled the situation when the bids were opened for supplying the county and city with the product of the wells.
By clever bidding, she had beat all the big oil companies for the work, the only woman in a room full of men. “Oh, how scared I was sometimes!” she recalled. “I would start in on a big deal and then get scared and wonder where I’d land. But I usually came out all right.”
Emma’s brilliant successes in the patriarchal world of oil made her a local celebrity, written about often in the local papers. Emma was more than happy to chat. One day in 1909, a journalist for the Los Angeles Times ran into her, looking particularly happy. “Revenge is sweet,” she told the writer:
Revenge!” I echoed, for I could not see how a woman with a reputed income of $25,000 a year could find it in her heart to be revenged on anything.
The Queen’s amazing success often led her into lawsuits with oil companies including Union Oil, business partners, and once—for complex financial reasons—herself. Whether accused of graft or keeping unclean horses, Emma always appeared in court and usually came out on top. She was fiercely protective of those who worked for her, defending her foreman and her chauffeur when they were accused of assaults.
Her success grew during the lead-up to World War I, as America’s consumption of fuel rose rapidly. Not all business all the time, Emma lived large on her own time too. She loved motoring, buying an elegant sixty-horse power Thomas Flyer. At her opulent mansion in Westlake (where Bullocks-Wilshire was later built), she had an impressive art collection, which included works by De Longpre and Corot. She owned ranches, and for a time, the Redondo Hotel.
Sadly, Emma’s success did not lead her to be a champion of important social movements like women’s suffrage. She was more than willing to give a speech, “What It Means to be a Practical Businesswoman,” to the Women’s Parliament but seemed indifferent to the struggles of the suffragette. “We have many bad laws and any change that would help both men and women by improving those laws should be heartily welcomed by everybody,” Emma ruminated to the Los Angeles Times. “…I do not know that enfranchising women will be of any benefit.”
It seems Emma lived too large, and in 1919, her $60,000 prized art collection was seized to pay off a court judgment against her. Her wells became less and less profitable, and she was forced to return to her old domain at Fort Moore Hill. She quickly turned this home into a hotel named “The Queen,” while she moved to the Biltmore and Alexandria Hotels. She died on Nov. 27, 1941, at Windsor Hospital in Glendale. All hail the Queen.
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